Golden Gophers vs. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

7:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Radio: WCCO 830 AM

TV: BigTenNetwork.com

Tickets: Best available- Row 10 upper deck, baseline

Minnesota may face its toughest home non-conference test of the season on Monday night against the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. That it is coming against last year’s Southland Conference champion, who just so happens to have lost four of their top five scorers tells you just about everything you need to know about what should be a rather uneventful two months at The Barn.

It wasn’t always this way. There have always been more than a few absolutely dreadful opponents in the early season. These are necessary for the Gophers to work out the kinks they acquired during the off-season and for the players to get to know each other, but there used to be good games too. Seeing the Gophers barely lose to #2 Cincinnati in 1998 is still one of my favorite Gopher basketball memories. Who would have thought Kyle Sanden of all people would nail a three with three seconds left? Now most of those great memories are relegated to the Big Ten season.

Bringing up Minnesota’s weak non-conference home schedule is a bit of a moot point this season. The Gophers should get plenty of opportunities to raise their national profile at the 76 Classic in Anaheim over Thanksgiving Weekend. Clemson, Butler, and West Virgina are all ranked  in most pre-season polls. If the Gophers weren’t playing some frankly bad teams, they would be in the same position as the 2001-2002 Michigan State Spartans, who played six ranked opponents in the non-conference season and never seemed to get on track. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see a competitive game before conference play.

Like a lot of upcoming teams, the Gophers face the problem of uncertain expectations which adversely affects non-conference scheduling.  Elite teams have no problem playing other elite teams on the road because if they win it will raise or at worst maintain their profile. If they lose, they have lost to a great team, and what harm is there in that.  If they play a team like the Gophers, who are expected to be good but not great, they run the risk of losing to a team not up to their caliber. If they win, they should have won. Right now it isn’t worth the risk for great teams to play a team like the Gophers during the non-conference season. The good news is that as the Gophers continue to improve, so should their schedule. Look for a big step up in the caliber of teams coming into Williams Arena in the coming years.

The Lumberjacks come into Monday night’s game as something of a question mark. There is little continuity between last season and this season with so many important players from last year’s squad no longer with the team. There is also little consistency between last season’s team and previous seasons. As you’d expect, their success has ebbed and flowed with their talent level.

If the Lumberjack’s lone exhibition game is any indication of what to expect on Monday, the Gophers should roll again.  Stephen F. Austin was out-shot and out-rebounded by something called Northwestern Oklahoma State and only won because they forced 24 turnovers. The Gophers are still a little too turnover prone, but they will take better care of the ball than a NAIA team.  Stephen F. Austin didn’t find many replacements for their departed scorers either, as only two players managed to score in double figures and they shot only 29% from the three-point line.

If this game was a year ago, it would have been a test. This won’t even amount to an open book quiz.

Keys for the Gophers

  • Make a few free-throws. Shooting 50% from the line isn’t a big deal in the first game of the season. Starting the season with poor free throw shooting in two straight games will cause some concern. I’d like to see Lawrence Westbrook get to the line at least a few times. Relying on Colton Iverson and Damian Johnson to take half the team’s free throws isn’t a great way to score free points.
  • Damian Johnson’s rebounding needs to improve. He does more than any other player on the floor on the defensive end, but if teams get the ball right back after missing a shot, it doesn’t matter how good the defense was. It shouldn’t be too hard for the senior captain to pull down at least five rebounds tomorrow night.
  • Rodney Williams needs to prove it was not just a fluke. His 14 point and three massive dunk performance is the best debut by a Gopher freshman since Kris Humphries refused to pass, ever. I’m not looking for points necessarily, just confirmation that he is indeed a much more polished player than last year.

Keys for the Lumberjacks

  • Somehow shut down the inside. The Lumberjacks would have won their exhibition easily if they didn’t allow Brandon Dixon, a 6’7” forward to score 14 points on 7-9 shooting.  It will be a tall task to deal with Minnesota’s interior height.
  • Make three-pointers. The Gophers haven’t consistently shown they can defend perimeter shooters. It was better Friday night, but there were still openings. Stephen F. Austin needs to make the most of their open outside shots (and yes, making three-pointers against the Gophers will  be a key every game).
  • Limit Minnesota’s second chance points. Northwestern Oklahoma had ten offensive rebounds. That should equate to about 25 for the Gophers if they don’t rebound aggressively.